We can finally see it, the light at the end of the tunnel. The playoffs are almost here.
Last night the Stars fell to the Predators, crushing their playoff hopes and locking in the top 8 teams in the Western Conference. The teams going to the show (if you haven’t already seen) are: Vancouver, St. Louis, LA, Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, Phoenix and San Jose (not necessarily in that order)
However, there is still a lot of potential movement.
Vancouver and St. Louis are still fighting for the top spot. Vancouver has a 2-point lead but St. Louis has the tie-breaker.
But what really matters for the Hawks over the weekend is what happens in the Pacific Division, as well as their own. LA, Phoenix and San Jose will all battle it out for the Pacific Division lead, while the two losers will be relegated to 7th and 8th seeds. Phoenix has the advantage with a game in hand, so winning out would clinch them the division.
Meanwhile, movement in the Central is still possible. While there are numerous scenarios that could play out, you can essentially break it down like this: for Nashville, one point on Saturday clinches them 4th. A regulation loss opens the door for Detroit to steal home ice. They would need two points against the Hawks tomorrow to do so.
If Nashville wins however, Detroit needs only a single point to clinch 5th place. However a regulation loss for the Wings, regardless of what Nashville does, launches the Hawks into 5th.
So basically: Nashville will be either 4th or 5th, Detroit will be either 4th, 5th or 6th and Chicago will be either 5th or 6th. There is no scenario where the Hawks will play the Wings in the first round.
That means that there are 4 potential first round opponents for the Hawks: LA, San Jose, Phoenix and Nashville. Let’s have a look at who the Hawks probably matchup better against.
Los Angeles Kings
While LA certainly shouldn’t make anyone shake in their boots, they’re not exactly the easiest matchup for the Hawks.
The Kings haven’t been the offensive juggernaut many predicted they would be coming into the season. The addition of Mike Richards last summer did not work as well as hoped and the Kings have struggled to find the back of the net on most nights. In fact the Kings have only scored 192 goals to date, second least in the entire Western Conference.
The only reason they’re in the playoffs is because of the play of likely-Vezina nominee Jonathan Quick, who leads the league with 10 shutouts. His play has made the Kings a playoff team, limiting their goals against to a mere 176, second best in the Western Conference.
The Kings are lead offensively by Anze Kopitar with 76 points in 81 games, Justin Williams with 57 in 81 in games and Dustin Brown with 54 in 81 games. They possess a number of other threats, including Mike Richards and injured Jeff Carter, who may or may not return for the first round.
LA has been in the same boat as the Hawks when it comes to the powerplay, which is stuck at 16.4%, 21st in the league. Their penalty kill however is a strong 87.2%, 4th best in the league.
The Kings can’t seem to score goals but they can certainly prevent them. This seems to be a mirror image of the Hawks who can score lots of goals but can’t seem to stop them. This could be problematic for the Hawks. If the Kings offense comes alive and is able to grab leads in games, it could be very difficult to come back.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks have more or less been a dud all season. The mini-makeover they went through last summer, trading away Setoguchi and Heatley and bringing in Burns, Havlat and Handzus, didn’t have the results that Sharks fans expected.
They received fairly mediocre goaltending from Antti Niemi. Combine that with a shallow defense and a group of underacheiving forwards and you end up where the Sharks have been most of the season: near the bottom of the standings and fighting for their playoff lives.
The Sharks are a team that could likely give the Hawks some trouble, but would more than likely be exposed on defense by the Hawks’ speed and offensive talent. Also the Hawks defense would have favorable matchups against a relatively shallow Sharks attack.
As far as special teams go, the Sharks have a strong powerplay at 21%, 2nd in the league but their penalty kill sucks just as much as the Hawks does at an abyssmal 77.4%, 28th in the league.
Again, on paper the Hawks are the better team. They possess the talent and depth on offense and defense to overwhelm the Sharks. However the Sharks possess the starpower and goaltending to get hot in the playoffs and could make the Hawks pay for defensive lapses and poor goaltending.
The Coyotes would not be in the playoffs were it not for Dave Tippet. His hard, defense-first system has carried this team and has made them a difficult opponent to face. Combine that with the surpisingly good goaltending of Mike Smith and a relatively balanced attack and you have a playoff team.
The Coyotes pose the same problem as the Kings: they don’t score a lot but they don’t give up a lot either. When they get leads they’re like to sit on them, which might make it difficult for a team like the Hawks, who has made a habit of coming from behind in games.
Their powerplay is almost non-existant at 14.2%, 29th in the league, however they are top 10 in the league on the PK at 84.9%, 8th in the league, causing additional problems for a Hawks powerplay that has been stranded in the desert for most of the season.
The Coyotes cannot matchup with the Hawks in terms of skill or depth, but their system is designed so they don’t have to. Much like if the Hawks were to play the Kings, getting and building leads would be absolutely critical in a series against the Coyotes. Coming from behind is not their strong suit and would play into the Hawks’ hands.
The Predators have gone all in this year, trading away valuable assets for guys like Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad. They went so far as to bribe Gary Bettman with the promise of making it to the Cup Finals to allow Alexander Radulov to return to the NHL without having to clear waivers (at least that’s my guess of how if happened)
The Predators still boast the best defensive pairing in the NHL of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, as well as one of the top goalies in Pekka Rinne. But what really makes them a threat is a much stronger, much deeper forward group that can score the goals the Predators of the past were never able to. Before the Predators had to try to match up with other teams, now other teams have to worry about matching up with them.
Their scoring leaders include Martin Erat with 58 points in 71 games, David Legwand with 52 in 77 games and Mike Fisher with 51 in 72 games. However other players like Sergei Kostitsyn, Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson and Craig Smith make the Predators the offensive threat that they’ve never been before.
Nashville has been dominant on special teams, with the top powerplay in the NHL at 21.7% and a top 10 PK at 83.5%.
Nashville is one of the few teams in the Western Conference that I would argue is better than the Hawks on paper. They have the defense and goaltending to stop the Hawks’ attack and now the offense to push the pace at the other end.
If I had to pick, I would want Phoenix first round. I’m not sold on Mike Smith as a playoff performer. Also, their overall lack of talent and depth has been exposed by the Red Wings the past two years. Chances are they would have the same problems in a series against the Hawks. The Hawks have the scoring. As long as their defense was sound and Corey Crawford was solid, I would be confident in their chances. I would take the Hawks in 6 games.
San Jose would be the next most ideal opponent. Their lack of defense could be easily exposed by the fast and skilled Hawks forwards. Furthermore, the Sharks are shallow enough on offense for the Hawks defense to handle them. Niemi and all that potential scoring is what worries me. I would cautiously take the Hawks in 6 games.
LA isn’t an ideal opponent, but they’re more ideal than Nashville. This series would depend hugely on Hawks defense and goaltending and keeping the Kings to 1 or 2 goals per game to give themselves a chance. The Kings pose a physical challenge and have the firepower and goaltending to be a real threat in the playoffs. I would give the Hawks the edge because they have a little more depth and would take the Hawks in 7 games.
I would like to avoid Nashville for the entire playoffs if possible. They pose a number of matchup problems for the Hawk, both on offense and defense. The advantage goes to Nashville in net as well. I have difficultly picking the Hawks to win a series against the Predators. If they meet in the first round, I would have to take the Preds in 6 games.
Let’s hope they don’t meet. Thank you for reading.